The Washington newsman’s 16th novel portrays the misadventures of a “straight and dull clothing salesman” who fabricates a new life that he can’t fit comfortably into.
Middle-aged Hugo Marder, a suit salesman at upscale Washington, D.C., store Nash Brothers, impulsively purchases on eBay a Silver Star awarded for heroism to a Vietnam veteran. Wearing its lapel pin in public, he’s immediately congratulated and admired by one and all—and, to his gratified surprise, Hugo’s “childhood dream” of becoming a Marine appears to be coming true (though false). Barely surviving a challenging conversation with a real Marine in a Thai restaurant (where some quick thinking on Hugo’s part defuses a potentially violent situation), he allows himself to believe he may actually be a hero. He exercises, loses weight, shaves his head and struts convincingly. Attending a “Semper Fidelis seminar” at the Smithsonian, he commands praise from luminaries like Art Buchwald and Mark Russell. Then, reporting for jury duty, Hugo encounters his hardnosed ex-wife Emily, a political secretary with urgent ambitions. She seems about to unmask him, until a threatened courtroom shootout inspires Hugo to act in a manner consistent with his newly created image. The D.C. Medal of Honor is presented to him (along with Emily’s rekindled sexual attention), and—lo and behold—Conscience appears. Requesting and receiving a transfer to Nash Brothers’ Dallas branch, Hugo finds more challenges, and eventually resolves to Make Things Right. But the culture (and, more particularly, the media) needs heroes—and he’s left to live unhappily and guiltily ever after. If the irony that attends this novel’s dénouement had been anywhere present in the slack, name-dropping, meandering pages leading up to it, the story might have managed a semblance of credibility. No such luck.
Bad news indeed: unconvincing and instantly forgettable.